What would Robert Smithson have achieved if he’d used brushes instead of boulders and earth? For an approximate answer, check out Nellie King Solomon. Solomon’s wall-sized acrylic-on-mylar paintings may lack the scale of Smithson’s pirouette in the Great Salt Lake, but her style of “flow painting” – developed over years of hard-won process experiments – achieves a similar impact: It transfixes us with simulations of things that appear natural and man-made – often all at once and in the same picture.
Solomon pours paint onto mylar and then lets it flow freely into puddles which she shapes and textures with custom-made hand tools, sweeping the liquid into circular arcs that are stained by rivulets that coalesce into retina-stinging plumes and dark shadows. Into these she mixes other substances which, when congealed, assume the texture of barnacles or of briny mineral deposits imprinted with fossils.
Rendered in magenta, mallard-duck green and obsidian black and tinged with iridescent glitter (whose hues shift anamorphically), Solomon’s paintings flip back and forth between allusions to toxic chemical spills and to naturally occurring phenomena, like volcanic eruptions, ocean currents and alluvial fans and to things you can see only through a microscope, like the division of cells.
While the alleged tension between macrocosmic and microcosmic has become something of a cliché in abstract painting, Solomon’s marriage of opposites is a palpable fact: When you look at her work it’s impossible to say whether you’re seeing a magnified view of a molecular reaction or a vision of the Earth’s crust from outer space. Both appear simultaneously and with equal force.
The historic antecedents for this kind of work are many: the free-form splatter of Jackson Pollock, the staining of Helen Frankenthaler, the gravity-based dripping of Pat Steir, the hybrid smearing techniques invented by Ed Moses and the gritty surfaces of early Sam Francis paintings are a few that come to mind. Solomon incorporates all of these, but adds the innovative use of mylar, a substrate whose semi-translucent quality allows her painted forms to hover both on the surface and slightly above it. This indeterminacy, of not knowing where, exactly, objects reside in space, makes viewers look even harder than they might do otherwise. The exceptions are four paintings from the Black Ring series which are smaller, darker and sharper-edged. These biomorphic shapes have a blunt, iconic stance.
Throughout, Solomon uses circular forms repeatedly. It’s an ancient practice with many contemporary adherents, most of whom lean toward “spiritual abstraction”. Solomon’s interests appear to lay elsewhere. She seems more closely aligned with Edward Burtynsky and David Maisel, two environmentally concerned photographers who depict ruined (but lovely ) landscapes shot from aerial or elevated perspectives. Like Burtynsky and Maisel, Solomon cloaks virulent toxicity in eye-candy beauty.
As the artist explains in a written statement: “Land marred and poisoned is disarmingly beautiful and dramatic in its tragedy…The paintings reflect my experiences of great western landscapes…The slick paint resembles oil spills and hot toxic color fields: beautiful pictures of terrible things.”
–DAVID M. ROTH
Nellie King Solomon Diamond Rings @ Brian Gross Fine Art through October 30, 2010.
Cover detail: “Magenta and Hooker’s Green Rings 1”, 2010, acrylic and mixed media on mylar, 96 x 96”
Learn more about Nellie King Solomon.